Welcome to the Atheists in Recovery Podcast, where we talk about finding hope in recovery. And now your host, Dr. Adina Silvestri.
Adina Silvestri 0:12
Hola guys, welcome to Episode 60 of the Atheists in Recovery podcast. And I'm really excited for you to meet our next guest. This is an interview that I'd really been looking forward to, to recording this individual. Well, his name is Dr. David Coogan. And David's life is inspiration inspirational, to say the least. So David, talks about how living near a crime scene would have this huge impact on the trajectory of his life and he is a professor by trade and so he took his gift of teaching others how to write To the prisons. And he thought that if he just presented this class this rating class to these prisoners, that maybe they would be interested, maybe they'd want to learn how they got to where they currently were, and learn more about themselves through writing through memoir, and ultimately want to have a better life and the outcomes of David's projects are just amazing. Okay, let's talk a bit more about David. Dr. David Coogan is an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a co author of writing our way out memoirs from jail. The creative combination of a writing class and which 10 men explore the conditions traps and turning points on their past imprisonment as well as the redemptive power of memoir. He is the founder and co director of open minds which brings college classes and college students into the Richmond city Justice Center, and the founder and director of writing your way out a criminal justice diversion program, which enables low level offenders in Richmond to avoid incarceration and instead pursue education. Okay, hope you enjoy today's show, Dr. David Coogan. Welcome to the show.
David Coogan 2:23
Thanks for having me.
Adina Silvestri 2:25
So I'm really curious as to what people's passion and calling eventually become, and you have a very interesting passion that we want to talk about today, and calling and so maybe you could take us back to your deepest roots from childhood.
David Coogan 2:42
Well, there's so many different ways to answer that. But I suppose if we're talking about how it relates to what I do now, as a writing teacher, I was always compelled by the power of writing to create community. And some of my earliest memories were, you know, writing song lyrics or poems that I would just with people that would get them involved in what I was trying to experience or express. And then later in high school, I started a newspaper. And I had so much fun writing these little stories that would bring the whole school together, I would stand at the door as everybody left school with my my buddy, who was the CO editor, and we would pass out the student voice and people would talk about it, and they would read the stories and they would debate about it. And then they would start writing articles for the paper, you know, the next week and we just had a blast figuring out that writing can connect people. So that that stuck with me those earlier experiences. And I guess the last one that was really memorable to me was asking my grandmother to write her memoir. My grandmother lived to be 104 and she started writing her memoir in her 80s. She finished a few years after that I was still in college, and I thought that I would use her stories to write fiction Like as the basis for fiction, and once again I was compelled by the power of, of her voice to create community, which she had done in her life in this poor coal mining town was amazing to me because there were so few opportunities for women. And her her voice in the memoir came through just like she spoke. And that proved to me that anybody can become a writer, anybody who has a passion to, to convey what they've experienced, can become a writer, and she's somebody I believe, could have been a writer if the times were different for women.
Adina Silvestri 4:33
Hmm. Yeah. What happened to the memoir?
David Coogan 4:38
Oh, well, yeah, she, we didn't publish it. But this was a in the in the 1980s. We, my mother and I and my brother, we took turns typing it up, and we had it, you know, maybe 50 or so copies just printed. Then she wouldn't let anybody read it. She's like, well, what if I got it wrong? What if I got something upset somebody and we convinced her that it was good writing and that when she You remember was really valuable to people. And just as we predicted, people in the family started to read it. And they were really impressed with both of those things that there were moments in there that she really captured a very unique and precious insight about poverty, about, about being Italian, about, you know, about life in a rural part of America. And that, you know, the memories that she that she had were so precise and so clear, and she has so much conviction in the way she expressed it, that people were transported back into this world that they had known. And those things really impressed me. I was just a college student, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. And I thought I was going to be a fiction writer. But that experience really compelled me to think about teaching writing, and I reflected back on my high school experience with the newspaper. And these things kind of came together to me as you know, something like a calling like you put it in the beginning of the show that I was meant to be somebody who helped cultivate stories and other people. And that I found that immensely rewarding, and I wanted more of it.
Adina Silvestri 6:07
Thank you for that. So I wanted you on the show to talk about a book called your book called writing our way out memoirs from jail and the podcast of the same name. Can you maybe talk a little bit now about what got you interested in working with incarcerated men and women? And then I definitely want to talk about about the podcast. Yeah,
David Coogan 6:31
sure. Well, when I moved to Richmond, in 2004, I was about to start my new job at Virginia Commonwealth University teaching writing. And I had never lived near a crime scene before. I came from Chicago and I taught on the south side at a different university. So I was familiar with community work, and with some of the issues surrounding poor communities and in particular in the black community in Chicago, but when I moved to Richmond, within a month there was a gang rape right in the park by my house. And I was walking in the park and just kind of taking it in. I didn't know what it happened. And when the television news camera came around, I asked them what the story was. And they told me, and when they told me it was a gang rape, instantly, I was put on the spot with a microphone under my nose. And I was asked to give comments on it. And I didn't know what to say I had so many different thoughts in my head. As time went on, and the coverage got deeper, and my neighbors and people were getting, you know, anxious, obviously, and they wanted resolution. And I heard a lot of things that I didn't really want to hear from people, because the four boys were black, and the couple was white, and I'm new to the south. So I'll just leave it at that. But what happened afterwards was I started to wonder why the kids had done it. And that question came to me sparked by the victim herself, who was interviewed once the For Kids were caught. And I say kids because somewhere young is middle school age somewhere, like mid High School, most of them had dropped out. They were young. And she asked, why would they ruin their lives? And I thought, how if she can ask that after what she's been through? Why don't the rest of us asked questions like that? So I started to think less about this particular event, and more about something I had never really put too much thought into, which was why do people commit crimes? Or why do they end up in situations where a crime becomes the only thing imaginable becomes inevitable? And then I further reason with myself, it can't be that people wake up and make a rational choice to go hurt other people. It can't be. That can't be the main way that crimes happened. And I said to myself, if I can, if I could meet people, and ask them to write the story of how they got incarcerated. I bet a lot of people would To discover things about themselves that they didn't know, like how their life had ended up this way where they came to carry a gun, or they came to be using drugs and all these little choices that seem natural and seem harmless, but then they become a problem when you're incarcerated. And I believe that most people would want to know those things about themselves, and that they would welcome the opportunity to write it, and that they really would want to live a better life, so they would not be incarcerated anymore. And I was mostly Right. I mean, there were definitely people who this was not for them. They didn't want this inquiry. They didn't trust me, but I think the majority, did. They at least gave it a shot. You know, they could tell that I wasn't trying to do anything but get to the bottom of the question here. I wanted to answer to the question. Why did your life turn out this way? And do you want to try living a better life?
Adina Silvestri 9:54
Yeah, those are powerful questions.
David Coogan 9:58
And that's what led to the book. Eventually, a core group of men formed. And they were committed not only to meeting for class and writing, but actually, even after they were transferred to prison. They wanted to continue writing. So we went on as pen pals for years. So the book you mentioned writing our way out memoirs from jail, started as a writing class at the Richmond city jail for about nine months. And then it became a pen pal project for, I'd say, about three or four years, then a reentry project, the men all came home different times, and we formed this collective and we resolve to make a book out of this experience. So the first class was in 2006. And the book was published in 2015. So if you're thinking about starting a writing class at a job, just give yourself 10 years and you'll you'll eventually come out the other end.
Adina Silvestri 10:52
Good to know. Yeah, so I'm wondering now if we can Talk a little bit about episode. I believe it was episode one and correct me if I'm wrong. It's the race episode, where you talk about Naji. Yeah. I'm wondering if we could talk about this episode just a little bit. And then I want to transition to do memoirs. But this episode was, wow, it was so powerful. And it talks a lot about the questions that I believe he started with, you know, why do people commit crimes? And yeah, so I'm wondering if you could talk a lot about that.
David Coogan 11:32
So the that episode asks the question, what happens to people to African American kids when they first encounter the reality of racism, and they're stigmatized, and they're traumatized, they're called out and this becomes a part of their story. So on that show, we read a story from the book from Naji moochie about the first time he was called the N word, and it completely shocked him because he was only five or six years old, innocent little kid playing with his friend who happened to be white. And the mother comes home and didn't realize that his her son had invited knology into the house and she yells, get that, and we're out of my house and and it just put them into that fight or flight mode. And so we analyze what was happening in his mind, my co authors Calvin Belton and Stan kradic. And Professor Sean Jones, who's a VCU professor in counseling psychology, and we analyze this and I learned a lot, you know, I mean, I thought I knew a lot just from reading the story, but it really overwhelmed me just to consider what it does to a body. I mean, even setting aside the mind what it does to the body to be habitually traumatized in small ways and large ways, by the casual, hateful language and actions of other people, white people, and you know what, I was the only white guy in the room up on the panel, and it occurred to me halfway through it that if I felt exhausted just having to analyze all this, what must be like for people every day, they have no choice, but to analyze and contend or in some way contend with this reality. why people don't know, they don't have to deal with that they can walk the other way they can choose to engage with it or not. And that was something that, I guess then been impressed upon me since the very beginning of the class when issues of race came up, that I had a privilege to walk away from the conversation. I didn't have to do anything other than, you know, non smile if I if I really wanted to, but I chose not to, and most of my co authors nachi included, they would tell you that, you know, I humbled myself, to try to understand what I had never been forced to understand. And I continued to walk in that path of humility. I don't always get it right but I still try it. Because I think it's important to try to understand what other people go through. And in Nagios case, we didn't quite get into it in that show, but his feelings of, I guess, insecurity or low self esteem, that were partly based on that racism. And not just in that incident, but in many incidents later if you read the book that really contributed to his his anger, and his need to express that anger in any way he could, which came to include crime.
Adina Silvestri 14:30
Wow. And I wonder too, you know, where where does that anger go? Does he does it just get absorbed by the child when they're encountering this racism or these acts of aggression? And then it comes out later and violence and and you talk a little bit about that in the show, but
David Coogan 14:48
it does. I asked that to Sean because I was guess, looking for some kind of certainty. And he reminded me gently that you know, everybody's different and not everybody processes, things in the Same way, it's a little bit reductive with any of these issues to say, well, because racism is exists, then everybody who experiences it will absorb it and become angry and then commit a crime. That of course, that doesn't happen. And if you read Nikes story, he attributes a lot of other things to his involvement with the criminal justice system, not just the racism. So everybody's complex, everybody has more than one way of seeing the world or experiencing the world. But in terms of what you're asking about where the anger goes, if you experience it that way, one of the things that I learned in that show, again, talking with Sean Jones was that people absorb the message about their self worth in different ways and you confront paradox after paradox after paradox, you know, how can I not be the person I am if the person I am is somehow wrong, you know, and when you're younger and you don't know what to do it that information, you're crying out for the affirmation that this is not your problem, it's somebody else's problem, or this is not something you can control all the time. And so you do need people to support you in how you take care of yourself as you contend with that issue. And talking about it and learning how to breathe, learning how to be connected to a community that cares about you. Those are all things that can help. Because until there's a massive change in the way, people conceive of people who are different than them who are darker than them, it's going to continue so that the thing you can control are your perceptions about what's happening with the realities and what what you're going to do about it. You can't control what they're doing, necessarily, but you can control how you react.
Adina Silvestri 16:45
Right? Yeah, and not to go too far into this episode. People just need to listen to it, but I think it was Calvin, who was talking about walking into a librarian and having to walk past this white couple and this woman sort of just shrink into her partner. And instead of getting angry at her, he said something that was like, you'll be okay. Or sir, or something like that. And that it seemed like that really helped him because he had, he was able to have a voice and it wasn't necessarily an angry voice, but it was like, you're okay.
David Coogan 17:20
And that's a good example of like, if I if I had been with him in that moment, because, you know, I see him all the time, and I probably would not have noticed that woman shrinking the way he did. That's an example I think of what it is that white people can afford not to see or just they're not trained to see. And, you know, kelvins a tall guy, he's not to me, because I know him very well, like he's not tall in an intimidating way. But people see a tall black man, and sometimes they have a certain kind of reaction about that, you know, maybe the way he dressed the way he walks and again, going back to what Sean said, you can't control these things. It's who you are. So like, I think Shawn said something like, well, maybe if I could be just less tall, she wouldn't be so scared of me or less dark, you know? Like, it's a paradox. It's absurd, really. And you know, Calvin is a mature man, he's, We're the same age pretty much. He might be, I think, a year or two younger than me. But, you know, he's able to say that now, because of where he is in life. He might not have been able to say that when he was much younger. Hmm,
Adina Silvestri 18:25
yeah, good point. So I thought maybe now we can transition to the memoir. Mm hmm. So how, how can you find yourself through writing? How can it have a cathartic effect? You know, I sometimes struggle with even talking about journaling with some of the guys that I work with. But when people just get to sit down and start, they're so happy with the results. And so I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.
David Coogan 18:56
Yeah, well, I always describe it to people who are reluctant or haven't done much writing, as it's a way of spending time with yourself, it's a way of taking care of yourself. And there's really no wrong way to do it. Unless you're intent on judging yourself the whole time. And you shouldn't do that you should just write to be you, you know, you should write, every writer has their own strong suits, their own skills, you know, things that they do well, naturally, and everybody has room to grow. So a lot of times people who are apprehensive about writing, they have this image from school, that there's a set form you have to do and that you're going to be graded in that in or judged in some way. And there's a right way and a wrong way to get better. But that's just not true. It's not true based on the research on teaching, writing. So I think the way it can be cathartic is that, you know, it's a trust process. People have to trust that if they relive a difficult experience by writing about it and getting very close to it and describing in detail, not only what happened, but how it made them feel, and what they think really is true. If they do those things, they can discover a realignment of their reality. That's the catharsis you're actually changing the past. Because the story you told yourself about the past before was, oh, I deserved it or nothing. You know, it's all this negative judgment. And you had your reasons. You had your reasons, let's say, you know, you develop the stealing habit, because of your addiction, you know, and then you had somebody who you stole from and they told you, you ain't shit. And they told you it over and over again. And you started to believe Yeah, maybe I'm just a stupid junkie, you know? Okay, but now you know differently because you got some issues, some mental health challenges, and you weren't trying to be a jerk. You know, you were just doing you the only way you knew how at the time So you have to have compassion for yourself, and go back and tell the story of how it really happened. It didn't happen, that you still because you made a rational choice to hurt somebody else or be a jerk. You still because you were desperate, and you didn't know what else to do to get help, and you couldn't talk to, let's say, your mother or your brother about it, because you feared that they would judge you. So, you know, those are good reasons. So give yourself a break, tell the story of how it really happened, not the judgment through somebody else's eyes. And once you do that, you know, you can slowly start to forgive yourself for the things that you did that you're not proud of. And maybe you can even forgive other people down the road for what they did to hurt you.
Adina Silvestri 21:46
Yeah, I love that. Writing down as you're talking, so you can slowly start to forgive yourself through this process.
David Coogan 21:54
Yeah, yeah, I know some people who do it for years. So it's not like you write one thing and it's all gone. And the other thing you can't expect is that simply writing to set the record straight and get revenge is going to make you feel better. Nor is it is it is it really sustainable just to write and express how badly you feel that you were whatever abused or called the N word. You know those things hurt and you have a right to feel angry about it. But if all you write is I can't believe you did that. I can't believe it. How dare you know, you're still you're elevating, you can hear it in the sound of my voice, all you're going to do is you're going to end at this high level of anger, and you're never going to come down into the level of insight. So when the emotions come, whether it's sadness or anger, bitterness, regret, all those things that you deal with when you lose somebody or when you realize you've never really loved yourself or even known yourself. All those emotions will come and you you have to be strong to know that you can experience And some, you can cry, you can you can be hurt, but you have to struggle through it to the inside. And that's a key. That's the only way it can be come to Thorndike is if you stick with it to learn. It's not gonna it's not just about feelings. It's really an intellectual process, and you need support to do it.
Adina Silvestri 23:22
Yeah. How would you recommend individuals get support through this process?
David Coogan 23:27
Well, I think the way I've known how to do it is in a class, I get a group together, whether it's at the jail or in the criminal justice diversion program, I do. And I think the more diverse the group, the better, the more diverse and inclusive, because people's experiences of their lives, share a lot in common with other people's experiences. They just don't know it based on the way each other look, you know, you might be older than me younger, you might be black, I'm white. And so all those differences, you're straight in You know, and I'm queer, or whatever the case may be, these differences are only surface differences. You know, the they definitely inform the experience. But loss is loss. Regret is regret. You know, anger is anger. And we can debate what a family is we can debate what addiction is we can debate all these things. But in the details of a story, they become more clear. So the best kind of support that I've known over the years is for a group to either write together and share in that space or to bring finish writing into the space and read it aloud. And there's something that happens when you read aloud an intimate scene from your life. You feel your voice taking on a different reality. It's you but it's not you because you've had to construct these sentences that represent you. And sometimes you get it right. And sometimes you don't. Sometimes you're shocked. To see how right you got it, and the voice that you hear yourself saying, These things happen to me, these things happen to me and you can feel your heartbeat you feel the stress. And that's good. That's also part of the catharsis because you're learning to grieve, and you're doing it in a supportive community. Now, the community has to be constructed on good faith, no crosstalk, no negativity, no judgment, no gossiping, nothing like that. No phones. I mean, it has to be complete respect for the one who's making herself or himself vulnerable. And that's the way that I've, the best way I found to do it. If you're alone writing, you know, I think if you can find a way, eventually after you've written enough of it, to form a small group of friends, I would say more than one, maybe two or three at least. So you have a diversity of perspectives and those people doing the same kind Writing, I have writing prompts on my website writing our way up comm that are the same ones I used in the jail more or less. And they're also in the book writing our way out. So that's a good place to start. And if you can just give yourself an hour to experience that freedom of writing toward the insight. And then if you're isolated right now, then to look for ways that you can form a community face to face if, if possible, or I guess these days over zoom. Mm hmm.
Adina Silvestri 26:33
Yes, yes, we're recording this during our pandemic. Yeah, I love that. I love finding a group of friends to get together al anon and aiaa also do this process of storytelling, but if you're not involved with them,
David Coogan 26:48
did it with writing or just with talking
Adina Silvestri 26:52
David Coogan 26:52
Adina Silvestri 26:53
Yeah. So, David, as we wrap up, I'm wondering what final thoughts you might have for our atheists in recovery community,
David Coogan 27:03
I've taught writing to a lot of people with addiction issues. And some people love a and a al anon they love recovery. You know, they're spiritual people, they find something in that community. That's very nurturing for them very life affirming for them. What I've also noticed though, over the years is that it's not for everybody. 12 stepping is not for everybody. And it's partly because of the insistence on the belief in a higher power. however you define God, I forgot to find by people who run recovery groups as Was it something something with direction have you do you know, that phrase like, good orderly direction, I think is how they define God. And that works for some people as a workaround, you know, to, to the spiritual part of or religious part of recovery. One thing that is a problem I've noticed consistently over the years for atheists is their desire for intellectual routes of inquiry that are more intellectual. And more, I guess, pluralistic, is like oil and water with the A groups, the desire for intellectual inquiry, either through reading or more education, or maybe just the desire to get to the bottom of whatever issue they're experiencing, through counseling, and psychology. Those are all intellectual pursuits. Those are people that want to feed their mind with more than just spiritual insight and the community that comes from recovery. And I always felt bad for those folks because they're overwhelmed, at least in the jail by the ones that are focused more on spiritual recovery, through substance abuse. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a good mix, something that can go in between I've known people that have found a resolution between the sort of lower level of intellectual inquiry that you get In na, and the sort of rigorous kind of inventory of your own habits that can go on in cognitive behavioral therapy. I would say this though that one thing that, that In conclusion, I guess that it's good to have a route to intellectual inquiry that can help you understand your issues and develop yourself and recovery. But there's also a side of that, that can mask the needed humility, to surrender to things that are beyond your control, or at least beyond your ability to understand. And so the caution I would give is that don't substitute intellectual inquiry for this sort of isolated I got this attitude where you don't ever get any help you don't go to counseling, you don't form a community intellectual pursuit of it is not a substitute for humility and community.
Adina Silvestri 29:57
And that sounds like a great place to end Thank you so much, David for being on today. How can my listeners best find you and say hi,
David Coogan 30:07
I would encourage listeners to go to writing our way out calm. That's the website that has more information about the book about podcasts and the other programs I've developed from it as the writing prompts that I mentioned, as well. And there's a link in there where you can email me. You can also find me at VCU, and through my email d Coogan, email@example.com.
Adina Silvestri 30:32
Sounds good. And I will link to all of this and more in the podcast show notes. All right. Well, thanks again, David, for being on.
David Coogan 30:40
Yeah, thank you. appreciate you having me.
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